With rarely a week passing without the words ‘woke’ or ‘racist’ cropping up in both mainstream and social media, last week was notable for disciplinary measures taken over the Twitter activity of some fairly well-known individuals – writer and columnist Julie Burchill and cricketer Ollie Robinson, both been accused of racism in their tweeting. This article is written by Raoul Walawalker, feature writer for the Immigration Advice Service, part of an organisation of UK and Ireland immigration lawyers.
In the case of 28-year-old Ollie Robinson, who’d only just debuted in international cricket at the start of June, and has been suspended from all further matches pending an investigation into his tweets in 2012, there’s generally been a quiet grumbling among some MPs and the media over the decision, with accusations of overreaction by the England and Wales Cricket Board to what might be seen as a young man’s past, brief indiscretion and poor judgement.
In the case of Julie Burchill, such understanding and eagerness to forgive hasn’t been so forthcoming. After a fairly immediate backlash over her tweets over the naming of Prince Harry and Meghan Merkle’s new baby (who she suggested should be called ‘Georgina Floyd’) she was fired by one of the right-wing papers she writes for, The Daily Telegraph.
She’s been retained (so far) by The Spectator, and to date the right-wing website Spiked.com has been the only media outlet to attempt to staunchly defend her, with its editor writing a passionate 1,000-word explanation of why the ‘idiots’ of the world fail to grasp the genuine fun and innocence of her seemingly distasteful tweets punning on the name of a brutally murdered black man.
But both cases reflect some of the breadth of opinions over the handling of abusive or offensive speech on Twitter – whether some cases might be seen as ‘witch-hunting’ as people declaring themselves to be ‘anti-woke’ claim, or whether tolerance for people trying to preserve a right to be casually offensive, whether racially or sexually, just isn’t a part of younger more progressive society, no matter how much some right-wing journalists might wish it were otherwise.
Writing in The Sun, the Spectator columnist Douglas Murray wrote a fairly compelling defence of Ollie Robinson, pointing out some of the key considerations – the tweets which didn’t target anyone personally as much make generalised insults over women and Muslims, were composed by a teenager ten years ago when policies and practices of using Twitter were still less understood.
Pertinently, Murray raises the questions of how these tweets could have emerged after so many years without someone having actively trawled to find them, possibly driven more by malicious intent rather than public concern. He highlights that the precedent set for holding people accountable to words spoken at far younger ages.
Significantly too, Murray raises the question of what level of accountability we’re supposed to give to figures who don’t hold a public office. Should a sports player be held as accountable for his words as a politician? And, while the point is reasonable, Murray’s argument then weakens as he opts not to choose the most obvious political candidate as an example (PM and ex-Spectator writer Boris Johnson, famed for his racial jokes and tropes years ago in a magazine which still features them) but instead opts to attack the young, progressive Labour MP Zara Sultana, who he claims once made anti-Semitic comments (‘horrible stuff’ what she said) without giving any quotes.
A key defence that Murray misses is that with the exception of these isolated tweets at a far younger age, there’s simply no particular pattern or repetition of any language by Robinson indicative of a tendency to being racist or sexist, which makes his defence of ‘temporary silliness’ a lot more plausible.
In Burchill’s case – a columnist typically described as ‘outspoken,’ who’s staked her claim among the ranks of well-known right-wing commentators in avowing the ‘war on wokeness’ there is little to suggest a one-off indiscretion or silly moment, given a degree of consistency in her asserting an almost nostalgic ‘right to offend whom I like how I like’ and being condemned in the process.
Three months ago, she was obliged to apologise and pay compensation to a left-wing and Muslim journalist whom she racially insulted while writing and living in a reality in which she sees herself as a true working class radical feminist in an environment becoming populated by young middle-class activists over-policing and encroaching on her right to say what she pleases.
Her most recent article in the Spectator was essentially a fairly flagrant piece of pro-Israel propaganda aimed at attacking celebrities that voiced support for Palestinians being bombed by Israel. Either through poor research or intent, she chooses not to mention that some of the people she attacks in the piece (such as the Hadid family) are of Palestinian heritage and not politically naïve, or that the Israeli government was already widely criticised for the statements that she repeats in her article which appear to reflect them saying things they haven’t ever said.
In previous work in the Spectator, Burchill has also written a poem romantically gushing about Home Secretary Priti Patel and her new heavily-criticised immigration plan while managing to throw in a few racial tropes about Patel too, and it leads to questions of what right anti-commentators truly wish to establish.
Both cases should invite pause for thought as to whether they are examples of overzealous discipling or else sincere attempts to tackle those who want to re-establish a world were casual insults – racial, sexual or homophobic – are the norm.